My Internship: What Your Biostatistics Professor Never Taught You

By Emily Greenberg

Statistics and regression are two words that always seem to strike an ominous chord when uttered in the context of research. I’ve watched as seasoned researchers have lost their cool over a difficult analysis, but never fully understood what could be quite so challenging about the process until this summer.

After taking two statistics courses (and enjoying them a surprising amount), I felt as though I was on my way to a strong foundation in statistical analysis. In class, data was always presented to us with a specific problem or objective and it was easy to make decisions about analysis and see these decisions produce the desired outcome.

As I delved into data from the Speak To Your Health! Community Survey as part of my summer internship at the Prevention Research Center, I finally realized how naïve I’d been. I was collaborating with a stroke neurologist, Dr. Lesli Skolarus, to clean and analyze stroke-related data from the 2007 and 2009 surveys. In my initial meeting with Dr. Skolarus and my project advisor, everything I’d been asked to do seemed straightforward and manageable. I confirmed that the assignment was in my comfort zone and set off to begin work.

Quickly, I was confronted with a multiplicity of problems and crucial decisions that needed to be made. Could responses categorized as “Don’t Know” be grouped in with the “No” responses? How would I deal with missing data in a racism scale? How could I ensure that individuals in the 2009 survey were different from those captured in the 2007 survey?

Solving these problems required an iterative process. Each time a decision was made, the overall analysis needed to be reassessed to make sure all of the pieces fit together properly and that decisions were consistent. This data was messy and necessitated critical thinking and problem solving. It challenged me to take what I had learned in class to a new and much more practical level.

Overall, this experience has taught me more than I could have ever learned in a classroom alone. It has given me the real world application to my studies that has strengthened my ability to think critically when designing a study, collecting data, and performing analysis. I am looking forward to continuing to work on this project as the school year begins and know that it will be an invaluable experience that I will take with me through my career as a public health professional.

Emily Greenberg is a second year MPH student in Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan. Emily’s research interests include socioeconomic disparities in health and implications of environment on health. In her spare time, Emily enjoys baking, reading, and interior design.